Bringing Solar To Impoverished Towns, With A Model Straight From The Corporate World
Friday, August 23, 2013
Juan Rodriguez was a rising star at Procter & Gamble in Central America when he started going through what he calls a “deep personal transformation.” He started with the company while still in college, working part time as an assistant brand manager on brands like Pampers and Pepto Bismol in between classes on business administration at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, and had since been promoted to brand manager for hair care products like Pantene. But something just didn’t feel right.
“I was convinced that my job wasn’t adding value to the world, and that I was just adding more problems: consuming more shampoo, throwing more shampoos into the lakes and rivers, throwing away all that packaging, contaminating,” Rodriguez explains. “I felt that I was not aligning my values with my daily activities.”
He soon learned he wasn’t the only one feeling that way: Close childhood friend Manuel Aguilar–a Harvard graduate with a degree in astrophysics who had gone on to manage a global hedge fund–was feeling restless, too. “We were both in the same phase,” Rodriguez remembers. “Two best buddies, like, ‘Okay, we gotta stop doing this, and we gotta change the world.’ And that was practically it. That’s when we started investigating about renewables.”
Three years ago, the pair founded Quetsol, a company that uses solar energy to improve the quality of life of poor communities living off the electrical grid. In Rodriguez’s and Aguilar’s native Guatemala, such poverty is widespread: Close to 20% of the population lives without electricity, relying primarily on candles for light.
The problem wasn’t exactly news. But after spending a year visiting close to 100 such communities, Rodriguez and Aguilar began to get a clear picture of why solar hadn’t yet succeeded. (Hint: it wasn’t for lack of trying.) “Going to a community and talking about solar power isn’t like going into a community and talking about space travel,” Rodriguez says. “It is something that people have already seen, because NGOs have donated solar systems to these communities for decades. In many cases, the systems worked perfectly, but eventually the batteries died, and nobody was there to service them.”